Don’t be intimidated by the name Middlebury Mountaineer. One doesn’t need to be a hard-core alpinist to visit the outdoor gear shop in downtown Middlebury or hire a guide from its sister company, Green Mountain Adventures. With more than 25 years of backcountry and guiding experience, owner Steven Atocha is ready to set people up for an autumn adventure, regardless of their experience or ability levels.
Atocha and his wife, Marion, moved to Vermont from Connecticut in 1994 to attend the University of Vermont. During college, Steven worked part time at the Alpine Shop in South Burlington while Marion worked nearby at Eastern Mountain Sports. After graduating in 1998, the couple opened their own retail store and guide company. They chose Middlebury, Atocha explained, because of its accessibility to so many outdoor recreational opportunities within 20 minutes of town, including rock climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and fly-fishing. As he put it, “You don’t have to be a weekend warrior here, which I love.”
Today, Marion works as a registered nurse while Steven runs the store and guide company with about a dozen employees, including the couple’s three sons: Brewer, 19; Abel, 17; and Lorenzo, 15. Green Mountain Adventures specializes in guided trips for hiking, paddling, rock climbing and fly-fishing, all of which are ideal in early to mid-fall.
For example, Green Mountain Adventures offers a class on the basics of rock climbing, taught on cliffs overlooking Lake Dunmore. Designed for people who are either new to the sport or want to apply skills they learned indoors, this program teaches basic knot-tying and belaying skills as well as fundamental body movements on rock. The four-hour trip, which costs $200 for one or two people, is suitable for any ability level.
For people who are more interested in getting out on water, fall is an ideal time for paddling, Atocha noted. Green Mountain Adventures offers custom-designed kayak tours on waters just minutes from Middlebury, including Otter Creek, Lake Dunmore, Dead Creek and Lake Champlain. A three-hour kayak lesson and tour runs $200 for one or two paddlers, with all equipment and transportation provided.
Come mid-October, Green Mountain Adventures transitions into a Nordic ski shop and offers guided trips. The shop also leases equipment for the Bill Koch League, a Nordic ski program for kids in kindergarten through middle school.
Among Green Mountain Adventures’ most popular excursions are its fly-fishing tours. Though the company serves a lot of tourists and parents of college students, Atocha noted that plenty of his clients are Vermonters who want to learn the sport, hone their skills or discover new locations to fish.
“They don’t want to spend their whole weekend exploring,” he said. “They just want to know where to go.”
SEVEN DAYS: How far do you travel for your guided trips?
STEVEN ATOCHA: We tend to stay on our home waters, places we know well and go to on a daily basis, so we can see how they change based on the weather and water levels. We don’t try to guide the entire state. We would give a poor product if we did. So we stick to within an hour’s drive.
SD: What are some of your most popular offerings heading into fall?
SA: Our guided fly-fishing tours are huge. We’re able to float, so we have rafts and hard boats that we take on the White River for trout and bass, and Otter Creek for trout, bass and pike. As the water levels climb and temperatures cool, we’ll be offering float trips, typically starting in mid-September. We also do paddling trips on Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, Chittenden Reservoir, Fern Lake and Lake Dunmore. It generally depends on where the group is coming from and their ability levels.
SD: What are your favorite places to fish?
SA: I live in Lincoln, a couple of minutes from the upper New Haven River, and I love that for brook trout fishing. Also, the Middlebury River, the Neshobe River and Furnace Brook. The Otter is also a great fishery.
SD: Are all your fly-fishing trips float trips?
SA: We love it, because it sets us apart from other guide companies. But that’s maybe 30 to 40 percent of our business. The rest is walk and wade, either half days or full days. We can target specific fish species based on water conditions, temperature and things like that. We can also supply gear, such as waders, rods, reels and flies.
SD: How many clients do you take at a time?
SA: As a rule of thumb, we don’t guide more than two clients per guide on a fishing trip. With fishing, there are a lot of moving parts, and I personally find it stressful to be running up and down the river trying to work on tangles and things like that.
SD: Where do you do the rock climbing?
SA: Typically, we do top-rope climbing above Lake Dunmore near the Falls of Lana. It’s a pretty easy approach, maybe a five- to seven-minute walk in. The cliffs are about 80 to 90 feet. It’s good for beginner to intermediate climbers and not a hard-core climbing spot by any means. There’s no experience necessary. We use full-body harnesses, and we’re belaying the clients and setting all the anchors. They’re always welcome to watch and learn, and we’re happy to teach them some of those techniques. It all depends on the client and what they want to get out of it. Some just want a family adventure.
SD: Tell me about your fall guided hikes.
SA: Typically we’re up in the Green Mountains, somewhere on the Long Trail. We’ve done Worth Mountain at Middlebury College Snow Bowl. The great thing about that trail is, a lot of Vermont hiking is in the tree canopy, where you only get views when you reach the summit. Snow Bowl is a nice option for people who don’t want to be too far out there. And because you keep crossing the ski trails, you always get a view in one direction or another.
SD: What are your more adventurous hikes?
SA: I just did the Long Trail from Appalachian Gap to Lincoln Gap, which is 11.5 miles and part of the Monroe Skyline. That goes over Mad River, Sugarbush North and South, and ends on Mount Abraham. That’s a five- to six-hour hike.
Another good one, which is just over 13 miles, is the Cooley Glen-Emily Proctor Trail between Ripton and Lincoln. You’re in the Presidential Range — Abraham, Grant, Roosevelt and Wilson — and you come down in Proctor. You don’t need a shuttle for that one because it’s a big loop from the trailhead. That offers a fair bit of elevation gain.
Whoever we’re taking out, we always ask: What do you want to experience? What have you done before? Then we try to find something new and different. We always want to summit, and I don’t want the hike to be so strenuous that they hate it. But I also want it to be a little outside of their comfort zone.
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